The forgotten Hemingway

In the first major museum exhibition devoted to the well-known writer and his work, a large section focuses on his pre-fame Paris years

Ernest Hemingway's passport issued on Dec 20, 1923.
Ernest Hemingway's passport issued on Dec 20, 1923.PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES
A photograph of Ernest Hemingway (circled) when he was in school, from a collection of his belongings.
A photograph of Ernest Hemingway (circled) when he was in school, from a collection of his belongings. PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • Ernest Hemingway was not only a commanding figure in 20th-century literature, but he was also a pack rat. He saved even his old passports and used bullfight tickets, leaving behind one of the longest paper trails of any author.

So how is it possible that Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars, which opened last Friday at the Morgan Library & Museum in midtown Manhattan, is the first major museum exhibition devoted to Hemingway and his work? It could be simply that no one thought of it before.

Most of Hemingway's papers are at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

After Hemingway's death in 1961, President John F. Kennedy, a fan, helped his widow, Mary, get into Cuba and retrieve many of his belongings there. Partly in gratitude, she later donated Hemingway's archive to the new presidential library. But the Kennedy Library, where this exhibition will travel in March, is not accustomed, as the Morgan is, to putting on big crowd- pleasing shows.

Mr Declan Kiely, Morgan's head of literary and historical manuscripts and the show's curator, said recently that he and Mr Patrick Milliman, director of communications, began talking about Hemingway in 2010, after concluding that an exhibition about J.D. Salinger, who had just died, was probably not feasible.

Hemingway posing with a 1929 portrait of himself (above) painted by Waldo Pierce in an undated photograph. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333, which is a damned good average for a hitter.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY, who often wrote in pencil during his early days

The Hemingway exhibition, mounted on walls that have been painted tropical blue to suggest his years in Key West and in Cuba, takes him all the way from high school (where one of his classmates described him as "egotistical, dogmatic and somewhat obnoxious") to roughly 1950, when he turns up as a self-caricature in Lillian Ross' famous New Yorker profile.

But the largest and most interesting section focuses on the 1920s, his early days in Paris, and reveals a writer people might have been in danger of forgetting: Hemingway before he became Hemingway.

The first photo the viewer sees is a big blow-up of a handsome, clean-shaven, 19-year-old standing on crutches. This is from the summer of 1918, when Hemingway was recovering from shrapnel wounds at the Red Cross hospital in Milan and trying to turn his wartime experiences into fiction. The manuscript is at the Morgan, scrawled in pencil on Red Cross stationery.

Perhaps because of the famous For Whom The Bell Tolls jacket photo (also at the Morgan), which shows Hemingway bent over a Royal portable, people tend to think of him as someone who wrote on the typewriter.

But the evidence at this exhibition suggests that, in the early days anyway, he often wrote in pencil, mostly in cheap notebooks but sometimes on whatever paper came to hand.

The first draft of the short story Soldier's Home is written on sheets he appears to have swiped from a telegraph office. The impression one gets is of a young writer seized by inspiration and sometimes barrelling ahead without an entirely clear sense of where he is going.

He began the original draft of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, which he finished in just nine weeks during the summer of 1925, on loose sheets and then switched over to notebooks.

"Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it," he wrote later in an Esquire article. "That is .333, which is a damned good average for a hitter."

F. Scott Fitzgerald (some of whose correspondence with Hemingway, beginning that year, is also on view) famously urged him to cut the first two chapters of The Sun Also Rises, complaining about the "elephantine facetiousness" of the beginning, and Hemingway obliged, getting rid of a clunky opening that now seems almost "meta".

"This is a story about a lady. Her name is Lady Ashley and when the story begins, she is living in Paris and it is Spring. That should be a good setting for a romantic but highly moral story."

In 1929, in a nine-page pencilled critique, Fitzgerald also suggested numerous revisions for A Farewell To Arms. Hemingway took some of these, but less graciously, and soon afterwards, his friendship with Fitzgerald came to an end. At the bottom of Fitzgerald's letter he wrote: "Kiss my a**/E.H."

Hemingway also tried 47 endings for that novel. Those on view at the Morgan include the "Nada" ending ("That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and that is all I can promise you") and the only slightly more hopeful one suggested by Fitzgerald, in which the world "kills the very good and very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these, you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry".

In display case after display case, you see Hemingway during his Paris years inventing and reinventing himself, discovering as he goes along just what kind of writer he wants to be.

In a moving 1925 letter to his parents, who refused to read In Our Time, his second story collection, he writes: "You see I'm trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across - not just to depict life - or criticise it - but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me, you actually experience the thing. You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful."

As the years went by, he also puts on weight, grows a moustache (seen in a Man Ray photograph) and, for some unfathomable reason, poses for an oil painting as "Kid Balzac", a challenger ready to knock out the great 19th-century realist.

By the time World War II broke out, Hemingway had solidified into the iconic figure people now remember: Papa. Even Salinger calls him this, in a 1946 letter written while he is in an army psychiatric hospital, in which he says of the war that a 1944 meeting with Hemingway in Paris was "the only helpful minutes of the whole business".

Hemingway, often drinking and despondent, did not know it, but his best work was behind him by then, though there is perhaps an inkling of diminished expectation in a July 1949 letter he wrote to screenwriter Peter Viertel that ends: "I don't know any place left in the states where it's the kind of wild I like."

He also reveals himself in a series of uncharacteristically shy wartime letters to Mary Welsh, who would become his fourth wife.

In one, he apologises for not knowing enough adjectives. In another, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness vision of intimacy apparently written in darkness while he is travelling with the infantry as a war correspondent, he says: "It would be lovely to be in bed now, legs close and all held tight and lip like when you've pulled the pin from a grenade and let the handle ease up under your hand."


Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars is on at the Morgan Library & Museum till January next year. people

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2015, with the headline 'The forgotten Hemingway'. Print Edition | Subscribe